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Gaza Stripped: Inside the Vybz Kartel Empire
By Patricia Meschino
He earned his formidable reputation with cunning, complex rhymes that glorify the grim reality of ghetto gunfire and celebrate an array of sexual exploits, delivered in a booming deejayed cadence, and is regarded as the most controversial (and influential) figure in the consistently contentious dancehall reggae genre. In February 2009 the biggest hit of his career thus far “Rampin Shop” prompted the Jamaica Broadcasting Company to ban “music that displays, simulates or instructs sexual activities or positions” as well as suggestive songs with edited content from radio and TV while ongoing, widespread media debates surrounding the song made it 2009’s most popular dancehall tune, and propelled it onto the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart.
Adidja Palmer, a.k.a. Adi The Teacher but best known as Vybz Kartel was born on January 7, 1976, in the gritty Kingston community of Waterhouse, (the birthplace of such reggae luminaries as Michael Rose, Admiral Bailey and Beenie Man and the home of the legendary King Jammys Studio) and was raised in the Waterford area of the Kingston suburb of Portmore. He was originally part of a trio named Vibes Kartel, formed in 1996; when the trio disbanded in 1998, Adidja kept the name and adjusted its spelling. Vybz Kartel the solo artist got his first break as a songwriter; he estimates he has written at least 13 songs for his former mentor turned nemesis Bounty Killer including the hits “Warlord Rule The World”, “High Grade Forever” and “War 2000”. Subsequent tours with the Killer brought the fledgling deejay a modicum of international notoriety prior to his island wide impact although he was already a star in Portmore. Kartel amassed an arsenal of his own hits and eventually broke away from the Bounty Killer led Alliance, a consortium of artists that has at various times included Wayne Marshall, Busy Signal and Mavado; Mavado maintains a close association with the Killer but also helms his own crew, referred to as Gully.
Kartel now commands a collective of sixteen acts previously called the Portmore Empire but commonly acknowledged as Gaza. Each Gaza artist is signed to his label, Adidjaheim/Notnice Records and publishing company, Adidjaheim Publishing; he also writes their song lyrics, manages their careers and handles their concert bookings. “We are doing groundbreaking work for dancehall; dancehall needs an infrastructure and that’s what we are trying to create with the Empire,” Kartel declares.
As consumers of Jamaican media probably know, Kartel and Gaza have been waging an ongoing lyrical skirmish with Mavado’s Gully side since 2006. As their battle escalated, with opposing factions sporadically engaging in violent confrontations, a press conference was called in February 2007 at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel by Jamaica’s then Deputy Commissioner of Police Mark Shields and both artists declared a ceasefire. Tensions between the rival camps were temporarily cooled but the lyrical hostilities simmered on record throughout 2008 and reached a boiling point by year’s end when they clashed at the December 26 stage show Sting. The war continued between the dancehall superstars throughout 2009 while some of their fans took their support beyond the musical realm and into physical altercations. When this fierce rivalry resulted in fights, even stabbings at a few schools across Jamaica (with similar incidents playing out in schools in Trinidad and Guyana) the Jamaican government decided to intervene. On Dec. 9 at Jamaica House, Kartel and Mavado participated in an emergency meeting with several government officials including Minister of Information Daryl Vaz, National Security Minister Dwight Nelson and Bishop Herro Blair from the Peace Management Initiative and reportedly agreed to resolve their conflict; the meeting followed the artists’ joint early morning armistice performance at the West Kingston Jamboree, in Tivoli Gardens on Dec. 7. The ongoing strife has kept Kartel and Mavado’s names in the headlines; hopefully their newly brokered peace deal will generate the same level of interest and end the warring between their respective followers who have absolutely nothing to gain from this battle.
On December 1, six days before said artists called a truce on stage, I visited the Gaza Studio complex, located in the comfortable Kingston neighborhood of Havendale. As I arrived minutes after 1 PM Kartel was waiting on the Gaza verandah. I was ushered to a side entrance where I greeted him with a copy of Riddim Magazine from 2006 featuring a Kartel cover story I had written from our last interview. At that time he had a major hit “Emergency”, featuring the quick-witted, stark lyrical imagery that has earned Kartel accolades in the dancehall sphere but instead of wanton sexual escapades or grizzly gun battles, this song offered hard-hitting social commentary decrying the deplorable living conditions endured by so many Jamaicans. Kartel showed the magazine to his producer and record label partner NotNice, who was refining a few beats on his Mac and they laughed at the corn rows he sported back then; I remarked on the astounding changes that have taken place in his career since that time as his popularity now surpasses that of every deejay in Jamaica. If that assessment appears biased, it’s actually the result of a September 2009 study conducted by Dr. Donna Hope Marquis, lecturer in the Reggae Studies Department of the Kingston Campus of The University of the West Indies.
After a few minutes of chatting on the verandah, we went inside the Gaza studio, and took seats next to the mixing board. The studio walls were adorned with Vybz concert posters, CD cover posters and flyers for various dancehall events. “This looks like the start of a Vybz Museum,” I commented. “Vybz Museum?” The deejay ponders the notion of such an undertaking; given his shrewd entrepreneurial skills, as evidenced by the success of his Gaza Empire, Daggerin Condoms (launched in 2008) and especially his Vybz Rum, (he has just opened his own rum distillery in Kingston and in January 2010 he launches a new drink Vybz Chronic Rum) the Vybz Museum may not be a long way off. “Bob Marley was from Trenchtown and I am from Waterhouse, both garrison communities, and we have a Bob Marley Museum today so a Vybz Museum is inevitable. Dancehall needs its own monuments,” he declares.
Our two-hour conversation, which is presented in excerpts here, began with a simple question.
Pat Meschino: What do you think it is about your music that has made it so popular?
Vybz Kartel: Because Vybz Kartel music is so real and so vivid. While other artists would just touch on the surface of a topic, Vybz Kartel dives deep, deep, deep below the surface. Our music touches emotional chords in people. Example a song like “Virginity”, a normal deejay would just deejay about sex, but he wouldn’t go so far as to teach about virginity. Vybz Kartel just deals with straight day-to-day life scenarios. We just put it to lyrics and melody so it is as real as candy.
PM: Of course, what you call realism others call vulgarity and excessively violent. It’s realism that is accompanied by criticism, which, in turn, has fueled your popularity.
VK: (laughs) I love it! I was listening to a Bob Marley interview and he said something like who don’t like him, he still like them. And who criticize him, he glad because he can write songs off them. I didn’t understand what he meant when I was younger but now that I become a big man in the field of music, I understand exactly what he meant. I love the critics, never stop criticizing the teacher!
PM: Early in 2009 a lot of criticism was aimed at your big hit with (female deejay) Spice “Rampin Shop”, (along with other songs which used the word “daggerin”, a slang reference to sex) which became the catalyst for the Jamaica Broadcast Commission (BC) to ban explicit songs on TV and Radio. How do you feel the BC handled that incident?
VK: They dealt with the issue like we were terrorists, and they did say we were terrorists, that we were menaces to society so I guess that is why they attacked us in that way, without any prior warning, they didn’t keep any meeting with any key players in the industry. They just took it upon themselves to ban all edited songs. And I think that move was very stupid because banning edited songs mean banning even American songs that are also popular in Jamaica, even hip hop songs, R&B so that is why Vybz Kartel really came out against them even though I really didn’t have any backative. They used a divide and rule strategy because you have a lot of artists in Jamaica that say, yes, you have to ban the edited songs because they feel that when these songs are banned, they, the Rastafarian artists, would be getting more airplay. They should realize that it could be the same thing that they do against the Rastafarian artists tomorrow, they can say any music that says Rastafari ban it. So they (Rastas) thought it was something good for them but it was something bad for all of us. So that is why Vybz Kartel stood up and tried to fight it even though I was fighting a losing battle, even my lawyers told me that. But sometimes you have to show people that they can’t walk over you like a welcome mat. We are real people with feelings and emotions. And we are intelligent to know that what they are dealing with is bullshit and we have to fight it.
PM: Up until “Rampin Shop” was brought to the attention of the BC by school teacher Esther Tyson in a letter to the Jamaica Gleaner (newspaper), explicit songs played throughout the day, on many stations here for many years, songs that were definitely inappropriate for prime time listening and yet the BC seemingly didn’t know or care about it until Ms. Tyson’s letter.
VK: Radio personalities can tell you these are the songs that people request. These are the songs that make them money; they are not playing them because they like Vybz Kartel. They are playing the songs because the people want to hear Vybz Kartel. But the Broadcast Commission before “Rampin Shop” were a defunct organization, a toothless bear. I don’t know why Esther Tyson came up with this idea that Vybz Kartel is ripping up the moral fabric of the society; they are not really fighting music, they are fighting dancehall music because 99.999% of the performers of this music are ghetto youths and I think that is why they made such a drastic decision to ban it. The funny thing is the song became my first Billboard song and it is still in rotation on many radio stations in mainstream America.
PM: Dancehall music overall and you in particular have some very young listeners. Do you agree that certain lyrics are not fit for the young people who, ironically, are the biggest consumers of it? Should artists bear that responsibility when they know so many young people listen to their music?
VK: Straight up, I don’t think artists have to take any responsibility for being creative. When artists are creating they are expressing the world. They say art is an expression of life so if Jamaica wasn’t the murder capital of the world, gun songs wouldn’t be so popular. It is the culture. Just like in America, a lot of artists do songs about oral sex and it goes to number one because that is part of the American culture, where in Jamaica that is a different scenario. When an artist deejaying promises oral sex, he is going to get disrespected; he is going to get humiliated because although it is being done in Jamaica it is not part of our culture. So the culture is a representation of the music so if Vybz Kartel’s music is so dangerous and violent it speaks a lot for our society. I guess society is doing something wrong because we get our influences from what we see around us. We live in a capitalistic society so Vybz Kartel is not going to do gospel songs if I don’t see gospel making any money to support my kids. I am going to do the songs that people want to hear so if blame should be laid on Vybz Kartel and other artists that are doing violent songs, blame should also be laid on Hollywood. But they can’t get to Hollywood so they get to Vybz Kartel in Jamaica so they try to step on us and look like we are responsible for the downfall of society. In actuality, society is just reaping what they planted in the 70s and 80s. It started harvesting in the 90s and now their future looks bleak so they need a scapegoat so who is the best scapegoat? The artists. If I wasn’t Vybz Kartel, if I was just a normal citizen, I wouldn’t be looking to Vybz Kartel to grow my child, I wouldn’t put that responsibility in the hands of a deejay. So society just needs to look in the mirror and they will see what is happening in Jamaica, simple as that.
PM: But so many children don’t have parents to grow them and we know how influential artists are to the youth…
VK: So it comes back to the system. Because kids need identity, these kids are young and have impressionable minds. We as black people need identity, so if we don’t have a strong family unit, as most Third World countries don’t, then we will look for things outside of the family for identity, probably an area don, a peer or an artist. That is where society should be held responsible for providing the proper social upbringing of the child, the proper infrastructure within the garrison communities. Because people need identity and need to be identified with something so if they don’t identify with something they are gong to identify with Gaza. They are going to identify with Gully, they are going to identify with PNP or Laborite (JLP). So it comes right back to society because they are the ones who have the financial power to put things in place.
PM: You are so influence that if you said for 2010 I am solely going to focus on music that is uplifting, it would have a profound effect upon other artists and the society overall. The societal moral fabric is torn. Are you willing to play a part in repairing it?
VK: That is a good question coming from you because you don’t live here but a lot of the media in Jamaica ask me that question and I tell them it is a stupid question. Since the radio ban, which means no edited songs, only songs that are clean, I have the most songs on the radio so obviously I am doing the most clean songs. What people in this society are really debating when speaking about this Gully/Gaza issue, even Cliff Hughes (host of the Jamaican TV show Nationwide) was quoting a song I did like three years ago. For this year I only did four gun songs and those were written aimed at a specific artist in the Alliance, not a general gun song. I have been doing culture songs; even the last set of videos that premiered on national TV in Jamaica are all social commentary. Everything else is just girl tunes. Vybz Kartel has already been in conscious mode from the middle part of last year. But that is a good question coming from you, still, and I am in the process of doing that right now.
PM: Are you surprised by how much media interest this Gully/Gaza feud continues to generate?
VK: I am surprised at how stupid the media is, how simple minded and how frivolous they can be because there are so many serious issues in Jamaica. The Governor of the Bank of Jamaica (Derick Latibeaudiere who resigned his position on Oct. 30, 2009) is in this big scandal over money. People have been appointed in the cabinet and it is causing an outcry. Flour raise, sugar raise but everybody seems to be down on this Gully/Gaza thing, it is like a ploy to take the people’s minds off the real issues and the media is just playing along with it. The Jamaican media can be so simple minded and short sighted. I know how to control them and I hope they will be reading this!
PM: So what is at the basis of this feud?
VK: The barber and I (laughs) have a few rival songs going on and a little gangster banter but the people now in the streets who are fighting over Gaza/Gully are the same people who were fighting over (Jamaica’s political parties) JLP (Jamaica Labor Party) and PNP (People’s National Party). It is the same people from these deprived communities who need focus, they need identity, they need social infrastructure, those are the people I am talking about, they will always be fighting for something because they need to belong and this is the latest thing to belong to. When the barber and I are gone, I am sure there will be two other rivals, just like it was with Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. Why it is getting more serious as the years go by is because society is getting more serious. I would say in my estimate about 60% of Jamaica’s people are unemployed. When they go in the garrison the census is wrong. When they say 1,000 people are living there, its actually 10,000 people living in one little board house. People are suffering; they have no education, no job, no hope for the future. Society knows these things but they try to play it off on the same people who are going through the predicament, like Vybz Kartel and Mavado are the ones responsible for their predicament. And a few people are actually buying into it. They did some buttons with Vybz Kartel depicted in violent ways with guns and things like that and people actually believed I was the one who spent my money to manufacture these buttons, to show you how simple minded these people are! (The buttons or pins Kartel refers to feature images of him holding guns, with artwork reminiscent of Hollywood action movie posters captioned with some of his most violent lyrics. These items, which also included trading cards, are so disturbing because they were specifically marketed to students and were sold at the gates of various schools; a few items bore the names of specific schools recast as vicious “empires”). So in all interviews I do, when people try to say how responsible artists are (for the violence in society) I still say all responsibility should be laid on society. I live in Norbrook, it is an upscale community and I don’t see anybody in Norbrook fighting over Gully/Gaza music and I can bet my neck that everybody in Norbrook listen to Gully/Gaza music if you are in the ages between X and Y, just as the kids in the ghetto do.
PM: Because they have a far better quality of life there.
VK: Them have an identity, they belong to something and have something to focus on their general upbringing in their social infrastructure, they live in big houses with painted landscapes, they have places to move about, nobody is packed up together live like on the slave ship or on the minibus in Jamaica, or in the garrison community. Because where I come from, in Waterford, I see 30 million people on the corner and none of us have jobs. So bullshit is going to happen. It has nothing to do with Vybz Kartel and Mavado, the system has created something that they cannot manage and they need to lay blame on someone for creating this monster.
PM: And the politicians are rarely taken to task here by the media for their actions or inactions, as the case may be.
VK: No, a lot of the media here are middle class people and they look at us as despicably as the slave drivers did. A lot of them have grudges against artists for coming from nothing and becoming something. There’s a lot of things to it and if you need to talk about what they are and why they are, that would be a next interview.
PM: I would really like to do that interview
VK: Me too.
PM: This week a major story here, covered extensively by IRIE FM is all about the community of Wilberforce, also called Shanty Town in St. Ann, that had no running water so residents only used pit latrines; hygiene, obviously, was a problem and many people there were sick as a result. When IRIE FM did a segment on their Sunday news program Running African, a Canadian tourist heard about it and was moved to action. He bought water tanks for the community, paid to have the plumbing put in place and is now working to help the community. He was asked to appear on IRIE to discuss the matter with the MP for the area and when the MP said he had only heard of the situation four weeks earlier, and blamed the conditions on the previous (PNP) administration, Marshall became enraged and stormed out of the studio.
VK: Yeah! Dem tings dere! If a junior minister can be in charge of $250 million, that is the Cuban Light Bulb Scandal where they robbed $250 million. Apart from Shaggy and Sean Paul I think all of the artists money in Jamaica combined would probably just reach $250 million. So one person can rob that. What about the other millions that never leaked? The kickback and the cutbacks and the under the table deal? But everybody talks about Vybz Kartel and Mavado mashing up society. F*** them, I’m sorry.
Sometimes I get real emotional because we know what’s happening but people in the streets don’t know what’s happening. They are being taken for a ride and given a scapegoat. In a third world country, man, just fresh out of slavery, just 300 years, it’s very easy.
PM: Even in a “first world” country like the US, look at he celebrity scandals that dominate our news when we are engaged in two wars, dealing with a mortgage crisis, skyrocketing unemployment and bailouts for millionaire bankers!
VK: So imagine Jamaica!
PM: Switiching gears, Sting 2009 is around the corner….
VK: Murder! No! No murder (laughs).
VK: I won’t be clashing anyone.
PM: You won’t be clashing Bounty Killer?
VK: No, man. Bounty Killer just looking for hype. He needs Vybz Kartel to help balance his spiraling career. I am not up for that right now. Vybz Kartel is just doing music, the business and bringing out the empire. Right now I got 15-16 artists, nobody has ever done that in dancehall. If I ever clash somebody it has to be Mavado because over the years everybody has their rivals to determine each generation…its like you have a Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster back in the day, you have a Super Cat and a such man; a Ninja Man and a Shabba; a Bounty and Beenie. So it would have to be a Mavado and a Vybz Kartel, it couldn’t be Bounty and Vybz Kartel, his generation is gone and mine is just beginning. That’s demographics I doubt if he knows the meaning of it but that’s what it is.
PM: So you would clash Mavado if he is willing?
VK: Yeah, but not now because right now it is very sensitive, what is happening with the whole dancehall thing. Right now we are trying to be the big man; they want me to take the blame for whats happening because they say I am the most influential artists for children between 15-24 but you have to remember that all of the murderers in Jamaica are between 15-24 so what they are saying to me is that I control all the gunman because since that survey came out I have been coming under so much pressure, and I haven’t done 10 gun songs since the start of the year. So I won’t be clashing anybody this Sting I will just be bringing out my new artists, Sheba, who have the big song with Gaza King and Pop Caan.
Stayed tuned for the 'NO HOLDS BARRED' radio interview as the host of the worlds #1 Caribbean Radio Show, DAHVED LEVY interviews VYBZ KARTEL. Below
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